George Town in Penang, Malaysia, has the best street food in Asia, argues John Brunton. As the city gears up for the George Town Festival, which starts this Friday, he picks 10 stand-out places where you can eat fantastically well, and cheaply
Know a great place to eat in Penang?
Nowhere in Asia can compare with Malaysia when it comes to street food, and although the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is a foodie paradise, ask Malaysians themselves where is the best place to eat, and the unanimous answer will be the tropical island of Penang, and in particular, George Town, a seething, authentic Chinatown. The stalls here are a gourmet kaleidoscope reflecting Malaysia’s colourful ethnic mix – as well as offering delicious Malay and Indian cuisine, Penang is unparalleled for the diversity and quality of its regional cooking. You eat well and cheaply everywhere in Penang, but here are 10 places really worth discovering.
Char Koay Teow Stall
Char koay teow (stir-fried ricecake strips) is the iconic Penang street food dish, copied all over Malaysia, but never tastes better than sitting at a low pavement table outside a hawker stall in one of George Town’s narrow back streets. Lean Joo Sean has been setting up outside the Sin Guat Keong coffee shop at 5.30pm every day since 1954. You can’t miss him with his tall white chef’s hat and the clouds of smoke that billow up each time he fires his wok over a flaming charcoal fire. A plate costs 3.40 Malaysian ringgit (about 70p), and he cooks right through till midnight as a steady queue forms for these exquisite fried noodles, prepared to a secret recipe that includes fresh mantis prawns.
• 86 Kimberley Street
De Tai Tong Cafe
Dim sum is traditionally served for breakfast but at this historic teahouse, in the heritage shophouses of Chinatown, they open for lunch and dinner too.
Tai Tong maintains the traditions of dim sum, not just with the variety of its menu, but still employing elderly ladies to push metal trolleys loaded with goodies around the tables. Many customers won’t even wait for the trolley to arrive and crowd round the grumpy waitresses picking up plates (around 40p each) of har gow (shrimp dumplings) and chee cheong fun (rice flour rolls filled with barbecued pork).
Don’t miss the lor mai gai (glutinous rice cooked with chicken, black mushroom and savoury chinese sausage), and for anyone with a sweet tooth, end the meal with a sinful, bright yellow egg tart of creamy egg custard in crisp pastry.
45 Lebuh Cintra
Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa
The Sin Hwa coffee shop, within walking distance of one of Asia’s longest reclining Buddha statues, is renowned for its claypot noodles and duck egg koay teow, but the stall with the longest line is for the 60p bowl of assam laksa. People come from all over the island for this delicious dish.
Ask for laksa in most of Malaysia and you will be served a bowl of curry laksa, cooked with a rich coconut milk sauce. This classic Nyonya (Chinese-Malay cooking) dish is very different in Penang though, as the Straits Chinese developed their own fusion version called assam laksa, a tart, hot and sour interpretation.
The base is an intense fish soup, flavoured with tamarind, ginger flower, galangal, pungent belacan prawn paste, refreshing sprigs of mint and sliced shallots.
329 Jalan Burma
Gurney Drive was once the preferred residence of Penang’s Chinese millionaires, who built grandiose mansions for themselves with splendid views over the sea. Today, most of the mansions have been replaced with towering luxury condos, but this long waterside promenade remains one of the most popular places for Penangites to eat seafood, and at night the streets are jammed with traffic.
But come in the morning when the joggers and tai chi enthusiasts are out, and try Malaysia’s most unusual but delicious breakfast, bak-kut-teh. The chefs brew a rich pork and herbal broth for hours, then serve the soup with pork ribs, succulent mushrooms, tofu and fried dough; serious foodies can ask for intestines and offal to be added too. Accompanied by Chinese tea, a hearty portion is £3, with free extra soup.
62 Gurney Drive
New Lane Satay Stall
Satay is the street dish most closely associated with Malaysia, and as it is usually cooked at Muslim Malay stalls, this automatically means beef or chicken satay. But the Chinese love pork satay, and although this is becoming increasingly rare in the rest of the country, Penang still has many hawkers.
Ngiom Far Luan has been cooking satay for more than 30 years just outside the Maxim Cafe on New Lane. Her secret is in the way she fans the flames and uses charcoal, which gives the meat a unique smoky taste. A stick costs less than 20p, so order a dozen.
New Lane is a street food paradise with about 50 stalls serving hokkien mee (stir-fried noodles), popiah (fresh spring rolls), ikan bakar (chargilled fish, often stingray, on a banana leaf) and lots more.
Restoran Kassim Mustafa
Lebuh Chulia is the classic meeting point for backpackers passing through Penang, lined with bars, restaurants and budget hostels. Kassim Mustafa is an airy, family-run corner cafe, open 24 hours a day, which for 30 years has been serving classic mamak cuisine – Indian Muslim cooking with a strong Malaysian influence.
For a first visit, try their nasi kandar, biryani rice with a couple of wickedly spicy curries – squid, chicken or beef – that will cost around £2. Then come back after midnight, when they start serving slowly roasted lamb shank, or for a different style of fusion cuisine, there is Thai-style moi sup (rice porridge soup) or tom yam campur (chicken and seafood soup).
12 Lebuh Chulia
Chee Cheong Jook Congee Stall
Porridge in Penang has nothing to do with breakfast; it refers to congee, a milky rice porridge that can be eaten at any time of the day with an incredible variety of things – most commonly fish or pork, seasoned with tangy preserved vegetables, chives, Chinese vinegar and century eggs.
But this tiny stall, just off the Chowrasta Street food market, is for serious fans of nose-to-tail cuisine, as the ingredients feature crispy pork intestines, innards from the stomach to the tongue, all hanging up on a neat line ready for chopping, and even pig-blood cakes. The friendly cook, who has been here 35 years, is always delighted when a tourist dares sit down, and at just 50p a bowl it is worth a try.
Outside 25 Jalan Kuala Kangsar
Weld Quay Restaurant
Eating seafood can be relatively expensive in Penang, but not if you discover this favourite local haunt hidden away on the busy harbour road, right by the ferry terminal.
Also known as the Tree Shade restaurant, because a huge tree has been left growing in the middle of the entrance, this looks at first like a fishmongers, with trays of exotic fish, live crabs and prawns displayed on mounds of dripping ice, alongside an open kitchen lined with blazing woks.
The idea is you choose what you want to eat, how you want it cooked and what the price will be, then head into the restaurant at the back. For around £5-£6 a head, you can try a main course of pomfret steamed with ginger, black pepper prawns or chilly crabs, accompanied by rice and a vegetable dish.
21 Pengkalan Weld
Townview Seafood Cafe
With its huge red neon crab outside, and the wriggling fish and strange-looking crustaceans swimming around huge aquariums, it’s not hard to guess the speciality here.
But in the open-air entrance is also a brilliant self-service buffet serving a Chinese version of the traditional Malay nasi campur (“mixed rice” topped with various meats, vegetables, peanuts, eggs and fried-shrimp) – you can choose from crispy pork belly, chilli lala clams, fish cakes, and kai-lan (a leaf vegetable) in oyster sauce.
Expect to pay £2-£3 depending on how many dishes you choose. Worth noting that Townview stays open till 5am
11 Jalan Macalister
Open from the early morning till the early hours of the night, Hameed’s is great to start the day with a freshly-made roti canai (Indian-influenced flatbread) dunked in a spicy fish curry or a thicker, doughy murtabak stuffed with chicken. At lunchtime the kitchen serves old planter specials such as homemade oxtail soup.
Located near Penang’s bar and club quarter, Hameed’s hots up after midnight, where its comfort beef and mutton soups are popular – try a bowl of the supposedly aphrodisiac beef sup torpedo, popularised by Anthony Bourdain on his TV series – well worth it for around £1.
48 Penang Road